I’ve written before about St. Ephraim of Edessa, called the Harp of the Holy Spirit. He was a fourth century deacon, theologian, homilist, and most famously, hymn writer — over 400 of his hymns still exist today. Many of his hymns and sermons were composed to defend the orthodox faith of Nicaea against competing heresies. I recommend a book of his hymns in English translation by Kathleen McVey, who also provides fascinating background information about his life, culture, and the Syriac church which was as significant as the Greek and Latin churches of the time.
He wrote in the Syriac language, which was a cognate of Aramaic, and delighted in the paradoxical imagery that meditation on the Incarnation and the Paschal Mystery inspires.
Who then, my Lord, compares to you?
The Watcher slept, the Great was small,
the Pure baptized, the Life who died,
the King abased to honor all:
praised be your glory.
He was also an extremely biblical writer: his hymns are filled with scriptural references, and he interprets many Old Testament texts, stories, and symbols as prefiguring Christ, including some pretty obscure references I wouldn’t recognize without the helpful footnotes. The man seriously knew his Bible.
One of his prayers is well known in the Orthodox church as, simply, the Lenten Prayer:
O Lord and Master of my life, do not give me the spirit of laziness, meddling, self-importance and idle talk.
Instead, grace me, Your servant, with the spirit of modesty, humility, patience, and love.
Indeed, my Lord and King, grant that I may see my own faults, and not condemn my brothers and sisters, for You are blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.
(Twelve deep bows, saying each time: O God, be gracious to me, a sinner.)
See also this detailed explication of the prayer (in a translation that names “sloth, faint-heartedness, lust for power, and idle talk” as the four sins in the first line) by Alexander Schmemann — a very fine Lenten meditation.
Ephraim has been called “The greatest poet of the patristic age and, perhaps, the only theologian-poet to rank beside Dante” (Robert Murray). He’s one of the mostly-hidden treasures of the Church.
Vote for Ephraim!